Mark 4:21–34 (ESV)
A Lamp Under a Basket
21 And he said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand? 22 For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light. 23 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” 24 And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. 25 For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
The Parable of the Seed Growing
26 And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. 27 He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. 28 The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
The Parable of the Mustard Seed
30 And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? 31 It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. 34 He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.
The lessons which our Saviour designs to teach us here by parables and figurative expressions are these:—
I. That those who are good ought to consider the obligations they are under to do good; that is, as in the parable before, to bring forth fruit.
God expects a grateful return of his gifts to us, and a useful improvement of his gifts in us; for (v. 21), Is a candle brought to be put under a bushel, or under a bed? No, but that it may be set on a candlestick. The apostles were ordained, to receive the gospel, not for themselves only, but for the good of others, to communicate it to them. All Christians, as they have received the gift, must minister the same. Note,
1. Gifts and graces make a man as a candle; the candle of the Lord (Prov. 20:27),
Lighted by the Father of lights; the most eminent are but candles, poor lights, compared with the Sun of righteousness. A candle gives light but a little way, and but a little while, and is easily blown out, and continually burning down and wasting.
2. Many who are lighted as candles, put themselves under a bed, or under a bushel:
They do not manifest grace themselves, nor minister grace to others; they have estates, and do no good with them; have their limbs and senses, wit and learning perhaps, but nobody is the better for them; they have spiritual gifts, but do not use them; like a taper in an urn, they burn to themselves.
3. Those who are lighted as candles, should set themselves on a candlestick;
That is, should improve all opportunities of doing good, as those that were made for the glory of God, and the service of the communities they are members of; we are not born for ourselves.
The reason given for this, is, because there is nothing hid, which shall not be manifested, which should not be made manifest (so it might better be read), v. 22.
There is no treasure of gifts and graces lodged in any but with design to be communicated; nor was the gospel made a secret to the apostles, to be concealed, but that it should come abroad, and be divulged to all the world. Though Christ expounded the parables to his disciples privately, yet it was with design to make them the more publicly useful; they were taught, that they might teach; and it is a general rule, that the ministration of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal, not himself only, but others also.
II. It concerns those who hear the word of the gospel, to mark what they hear, and to make a good use of it,
Because their weal or woe depends upon it; what he had said before he saith again, If any man have ears to hear, let him hear, v. 23. Let him give the gospel of Christ a fair hearing; but that is not enough, it is added (v. 24), Take heed what ye hear, and give a due regard to that which ye do hear; Consider what ye hear, so Dr. Hammond reads it. Note,
What we hear, doth us no good, unless we consider it; those especially that are to teach others must themselves be very observant of the things of God; must take notice of the message they are to deliver, that they may be exact. We must likewise take heed what we hear, by proving all things, that we may hold fast that which is good. We must be cautious, and stand upon our guard, lest we be imposed upon. To enforce this caution, consider,
1. As we deal with God, God will deal with us,
So Dr. Hammond explains these words, “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you. If ye be faithful servants to him, he will be a faithful Master to you: with the upright he will show himself upright.”
2. As we improve the talents we are entrusted with, we shall increase them;
If we make use of the knowledge we have, for the glory of God and the benefit of others, it shall sensibly grow, as stock in trade doth by being turned; Unto you that hear, shall more be given; to you that have, it shall be given, v. 25. If the disciples deliver that to the church, which they have received of the Lord, they shall be led more into the secret of the Lord. Gifts and graces multiply by being exercised; and God has promised to bless the hand of the diligent.
3. If we do not use, we lose, what we have;
From him that hath not, that doeth no good with what he hath, and so hath it in vain, is as if he had it not, shall be taken even that which he hath. Burying a talent is the betraying of a trust, and amounts to a forfeiture; and gifts and graces rust for want of wearing.
III. The good seed of the gospel sown in the world, and sown in the heart, doth by degrees produce wonderful effects, but without noise (v. 26, etc.);
So is the kingdom of God; so is the gospel, when it is sown, and received, as seed in good ground.
1. It will come up; though it seem lost and buried under the clods, it will find or make its way through them.
The seed cast into the ground will spring. Let but the word of Christ have the place it ought to have in a soul, and it will show itself, as the wisdom from above doth in a good conversation. After a field is sown with corn, how soon is the surface of it altered! How gay and pleasant doth it look, when it is covered with green!
2. The husbandman cannot describe how it comes up; it is one of the mysteries of nature; It springs and grows up, he knows not how, v. 27.
He sees it has grown, but he cannot tell in what manner it grew, or what was the cause and method of its growth. Thus we know not how the Spirit by the word makes a change in the heart, any more than we can account for the blowing of the wind, which we hear the sound of, but cannot tell whence it comes, or whither it goes. Without controversy, great is the mystery of godliness; how God manifested in the flesh came to be believed on in the world, 1 Tim. 3:16.
3. The husbandman, when he hath sown the seed, doth nothing toward the springing of it up;
He sleeps, and rises, night and day; goes to sleep at night, gets up in the morning, and perhaps never so much as thinks of the corn he hath sown, or ever looks upon it, but follows his pleasures or other business, and yet the earth brings forth fruit of itself, according to the ordinary course of nature, and by the concurring power of the God of nature.
Thus the word of grace, when it is received in faith, is in the heart a work of grace, and the preachers contribute nothing to it. The Spirit of God is carrying it on when they sleep, and can do no business (Job 33:15, 16), or when they rise to go about other business. The prophets do not live for ever; but the word which they preached, is doing its work, when they are in their graves, Zec. 1:5, 6. The dew by which the seed is brought up tarrieth not for man, nor waiteth for the sons of men, Mic. 5:7.
4. It grows gradually; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear, v. 28.
When it is sprung up, it will go forward; nature will have its course, and so will grace. Christ’s interest, both in the world and in the heart, is, and will be, a growing interest; and though the beginning be small, the latter end will greatly increase. Though thou sowest not that body that shall be, but bare grain, yet God will give to every seed its own body; though at first it is but a tender blade, which the frost may nip, or the foot may crush, yet it will increase to the ear, to the full corn in the ear. Natura nil facit per saltum—Nature does nothing abruptly. God carries on his work insensibly and without noise, but insuperably and without fail.
5. It comes to perfection at last (v. 29);
When the fruit is brought forth, that is, when it is ripe, and ready to be delivered into the owner’s hand; then he puts in the sickle. This intimates,
(1.) That Christ now accepts the services which are done to him by an honest heart from a good principle;
From the fruit of the gospel taking place and working in the soul, Christ gathers in a harvest of honour to himself. See Jn. 4:35.
(2.) That he will reward them in eternal life.
When those that receive the gospel aright, have finished their course, the harvest comes, when they shall be gathered as wheat into God’s barn (Mt. 13:30), as a shock of corn in his season.
IV. The work of grace is small in its beginnings, but comes to be great and considerable at last (v. 30–32);
“Whereunto shall I liken the kingdom of God, as now to be set up by the Messiah? How shall I make you to understand the designed method of it?” Christ speaks as one considering and consulting with himself, how to illustrate it with an apt similitude; With what comparison shall we compare it? Shall we fetch it from the motions of the sun, or the revolutions of the moon? No, the comparison is borrowed from this earth, it is like a grain of mustard-seed; he had compared it before to seed sown, here to that seed, intending thereby to show,
1. That the beginnings of the gospel kingdom would be very small, like that which is one of the least of all seeds.
When a Christian church was sown in the earth for God, it was all contained in one room, and the number of the names was but one hundred and twenty (Acts 1:15), as the children of Israel, when they went down into Egypt, were but seventy souls. The work of grace in the soul, is, at first, but the day of small things; a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand. Never were there such great things undertaken by such an inconsiderable handful, as that of the discipling of the nations by the ministry of the apostles; nor a work that was to end in such great glory, as the work of grace raised from such weak and unlikely beginnings. Who hath begotten me these?
2. That the perfection of it will be very great;
When it grows up, it becomes greater than all herbs. The gospel kingdom in the world, shall increase and spread to the remotest nations of the earth, and shall continue to the latest ages of time. The church hath shot out great branches, strong ones, spreading far, and fruitful. The work of grace in the soul has mighty products, now while it is in its growth; but what will it be, when it is perfected in heaven? The difference between a grain of mustard seed and a great tree, is nothing to that between a young convert on earth and a glorified saint in heaven. See Jn. 12:24.
After the parables thus specified the historian concludes with this general account of Christ’s preaching
That with many such parables he spoke the word unto them (v. 33); probably designing to refer us to the larger account of the parables of this kind, which we had before, Mt. 13. He spoke in parables, as they were able to hear them; he fetched his comparisons from those things that were familiar to them, and level to their capacity, and delivered them in plain expressions, in condescension to their capacity; though he did not let them into the mystery of the parables, yet his manner of expression was easy, and such as they might hereafter recollect to their edification. But, for the present, without a parable spoke he not unto them, v. 34.
The glory of the Lord was covered with a cloud, and God speaks to us in the language of the sons of men, that, though not at first, yet by degrees, we may understand his meaning; the disciples themselves understood those sayings of Christ afterward, which at first they did not rightly take the sense of. But these parables he expounded to them, when they were alone. We cannot but wish we had had that exposition, as we had of the parable of the sower; but it was not so needful; because, when the church should be enlarged, that would expound these parables to us, without any more ado.
Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible